5 women on what they learned by teaching women to code in a Delaware prison

Girl Develop It, the women’s tech-education nonprofit that’s headquartered in Philadelphia and has a strong local base, has trained tens of thousands of women around the country in coding and design.

But in December, it conducted its first class in a women’s prison.

The course was full of new challenges: For one, no internet access.

But in other ways, the students in Intro to Web Concepts at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution in New Castle, Del., weren’t so different than those in other classes Girl Develop It teaches: An artist named Kai and a former nurse named Barbara were planning for potential jobs upon leaving prison. There was a correctional officer who wanted to make a website for her catering business side-hustle.

Backed by Delaware-based banking giants Capital One and Barclaycard, the program brought women developers from the region to teach 12 students. Here’s what five of the women who organized or taught the course learned from the experience.

Teachers, teaching assistants and students at Girl Develop Its first coding class at a womens prison.
Camera icon Corinne Warnshuis
Teachers, teaching assistants and students at Girl Develop It’s first coding class at a women’s prison in Delaware.

Alex Lash, user experience designer at mapping firm Azavea:

“The moment that stood out most to me was when several of our students indicated that they had hardly used computers before they were incarcerated. Several of them had been incarcerated for so long that they had never used a touchscreen phone. This was a huge come-to-Jesus moment for the rest of us. We realized that we had taken a lot of knowledge for granted …”

Ebonie Butler, developer at web development agency YIKES Inc.:

“I feel like the media generalizes prisons to be this dark, forbidden place in which people who deserve no humanity are exiled to. As if your life just ends if you ever get sent to prison. But that is not the case at all. ”

Lisa Yoder, freelance developer: 

“It was challenging to explain concepts to students who have really varying levels of prior knowledge, context, or experience on the subject. To some degree, this is always going to be the case in any classroom, but in this instance, some students had very limited context for something we often take for granted — internet access. This really stretched me as an educator and forced me to get creative in explaining concepts in new ways that I hadn’t considered before.”

Elizabeth Cottrell, developer at web design company Webjunto:

“In some instances, we had to think a little harder about relevant examples for people who aren’t regularly online and couldn’t use the easy ‘Google it’ response or direct them to an online resource, but it really wasn’t as big of a hurdle as I thought it would be.”

Corinne Warnshuis, executive director of Girl Develop It:

“A lot of people asked me, ‘Aren’t you afraid to go into the prison?’ and I really wasn’t. … Most of these women are victims of poverty and bad circumstances, failing systems. … It’s really inspiring to watch someone unlock their own potential. I know that is, like, so corny. Women have been told their whole lives they can’t learn tech or they’re not good at it. And then when we give them this space to try it, they find that they can do it, and it’s just empowering.”